HELENA – The Rice Ridge Fire has burned east of Seeley Lake for almost a month and a half, covering more than 100,000 acres and sending smoke across western Montana. Now, officials in Lewis and Clark County say they’re concerned about the possibility that it could spread rapidly toward Lincoln.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton led a meeting at the Lincoln Fire Hall Friday morning. County Commissioner Susan Good Geise, chiefs from a number of local fire departments and representatives from groups like the U.S. Forest Service and the Red Cross were all on hand.

Dutton said the meeting was the first step in planning how they’ll respond if one of the major wildfires in the area starts to grow dramatically.

“One of our concerns is that the Rice Ridge Fire will burn into the Park Creek Fire,” he said. “We need to be ready; we need the citizens to be ready.”

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Authorities estimate the Rice Ridge Fire is still around six miles away from the Park Creek Fire, but smoky conditions have made it difficult to determine how far the fire has spread. If it burns too far south, they believe prevailing winds could drive it toward some subdivisions outside of Lincoln.

The crews managing each of the fires have designated a set of key points, known as management action points. If the fire reaches some of those points, county leaders will start planning to issue pre-evacuation warnings – and possibly evacuation orders after that.

“We’ve taken into consideration the energy release components of big fuels that will burn for a long time, the wind speed, how fast it could possibly travel,” Dutton said. “We’re trying to give people approximately two hours to be ready.”

While leaders are especially concerned about the Rice Ridge Fire, they’re also making plans in case the Alice Creek Fire approaches Lincoln from the east.

Forecasters are expecting lightning and erratic winds through the weekend, which could also mean new fires will start.

“Mother Nature happens to be in charge right now and we’re just reacting to it, and that’s what’s going to happen,” said Bob Drake, chief of the Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department.

Leaders say it’s important for them to have a detailed plan in case the worst should happen, but they also want to reassure people living in the Lincoln community.

“The people who are assembled here are planning for the worst, but hoping for the best,” Geise said. “Nobody should be panicked, but everyone should be vigilant.”

Officials say if evacuations are required, they will use a targeted emergency notification system. They recommend that everyone who primarily uses a cell phone or VoIP system sign up to receive those notifications. You can register for the alerts at the county website.

Landline phones in Lewis and Clark County are automatically set up to receive emergency notifications.